The stand-up comedy boom of the 1980s was popularized by television and especially by HBO. It got to the point where comedy was so profitable that television producers saw potential in a TV network dedicated to comedy. Producer Tom Kay wanted to do for comedy what MTV did for music, but this was such a radical business venture in the eighties that no one wanted to invest in it.
But a few years later HBO would take the plunge when they announced The Comedy Channel, which premiered in 1989.
The Comedy Channel often aired clips of stand-up comedy but it also aired a lot of clips from classic comedy films like Young Frankenstein and other movies that aired on HBO and sister network Cinemax. Short Attention Span Theater was a clip show that aired regularly on the network from 1989 to 1994 and it was hosted by such comedians as Jon Stewart and Marc Maron at one point or another.
The Comedy Channel also aired Mystery Science Theater 3000 (aka MST3K) and original series Onion World with Rich Hall, The Sweet Life with Rachel Sweet, Night After Night with Allan Havey, SportsCenter parody Sports Monster and The Higgins Boys and Gruber, created by MST3K creator Joel Hodgson and starring three future television stars: Dave (Gruber) Allen (best known today as the guidance counselor from Freaks and Geeks), and real-life brothers David Anthony Higgins (Craig Feldspar from Malcolm in the Middle) and Steve Higgins, the future talk show announcer for Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon. The trio would often improvise dialogue between various funny clips and vintage obscure (and cheap) TV shows like Supercar and Clutch Cargo.
Viacom launched their own comedy-themed cable network called Ha! in 1990. Ha! started out airing old sitcom and sketch comedy reruns, including Saturday Night Live in its full 90 minutes.
These two networks would not last long. At least not on their own.
It turned out both Time Warner and Viacom miscalculated the comedy boom’s longevity because in the nineties the boom started to decline. So much so that business analysts began to predict doom for both networks. In order to pay back their investors and possibly salvage their venture, Time Warner and Viacom decided to merge The Comedy Channel and Ha! in 1990 and out of the merger came CTV: The Comedy Network. CTV launched on April 1, 1991 but to avoid conflict with Canadian broadcast network CTV, they changed the name in June that year to Comedy Central. Time Warner and Viacom both owned the network in the nineties but Viacom bought out Warner’s shares in 2003 and maintains control of the network to this day.
Comedy Central’s popularity was relatively small in the nineties with the exception of a few hits like MST3K, Bill Maher’s talk show Politically Incorrect (later moved to ABC), Dr. Katz Professional Therapist, The Man Show and Win Ben Stein’s Money. But the network’s popularity really skyrocketed when South Park premiered in 1997 and became a word-of-mouth sensation for its notoriety as a bold and controversial cartoon aimed at adults, the first mainstream one to be rated TV-MA. The show was responsible for an increased demand for Comedy Central throughout the U.S. in the late nineties and the series is still running to this day.
Comedy Central’s popularity continued to rise in the 2000s thanks to programs like South Park, The Daily Show, Chappelle’s Show, Reno 911!, The Colbert Report and Tosh.0. I first started paying attention to the network in the 2010s when they had a string of hits that included some of my favorite television comedies ever made. That decade included Workaholics, Key & Peele, Drunk History, Inside Amy Schumer, Kroll Show, Nathan for You and Broad City. They also continue to air a lot of popular comedies in syndication, some of which have included The Kids in the Hall, The Office, 30 Rock, Scrubs, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Futurama and Schitt’s Creek.
Of course the network was founded on the popularity of stand-up comedy and there is still plenty of that as well. In addition to the occasional stand-up special, Comedy Central Roast has been airing since 2003 featuring the meanest comedians in show business targeting such celebrities as William Shatner, Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen, James Franco and Alec Baldwin.
A lot of Comedy Central shows can be watched for free on their website but a lot more can be watched on the streaming service Paramount+.
Some of the funniest original shows I’ve watched and where you can watch them if they are available:
Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist (YouTube)
South Park (HBO Max)
Chappelle’s Show (Netflix, HBO Max, Paramount+)
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
The Colbert Report
Drawn Together (Paramount+)
The Sarah Silverman Program (Paramount+)
Key & Peele (Hulu, HBO Max, Paramount+)
Drunk History (Hulu)
Inside Amy Schumer (HBO Max, Paramount+)
Kroll Show (Paramount+)
Broad City (Hulu)
The President Show (Paramount+)